‘Dickinson’: The genius of contemporary soundtracks in period pieces

Dickinson is a show dedicated to not putting a person into a box – the person in question of course being Emily Dickinson, the famous and absolutely genius poet, whose life story is the show’s centrepiece. Set in 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson fits all the criteria of a period piece, except it doesn’t. Through the witty writing of the show’s creators, and more importantly, the contemporary soundtrack accompanying the script, Dickinson transcends historical boundaries. It takes the viewer into the life and mind of Emily Dickinson (portrayed by Hailee Steinfeld), and teaches us all important lessons about life and death, love and fame, and the importance of always staying true to oneself.

Much like how few recognised Emily’s genius during her lifetime, no review today could quite do Dickinson justice. Its angles of dealing with the poet’s life, although some would argue inappropriate for a period piece, somehow manage to capture Emily in her entirety; not simply as a poet, but as a sister, a daughter, a friend who sometimes takes carriage rides with Death (played by Wiz Khalifa) and slow dances with a giant bee. Alena Smith, who we can all thank for creating this wonderful show, brings Emily and her poems to life with the help of a brilliant soundtrack.

It takes about 3 minutes of the first episode for the viewer to realise Dickinson doesn’t fit the notion of a classic period piece, when Noga Erez’s ‘Off the Radar’ plays as the backdrop to Emily carrying a bucket of water from the well. Yes, it sounds a bit weird – two worlds colliding that shouldn’t be. Later in the same episode, when A$ap Rocky’s ‘Praise the Lord’ comes on, the “aha!” moment fully arrives. It hits you that a period piece with rap songs, with pop classics by Lizzo and Billie Eilish, with indie hits by the likes of Mitski and Andrew Bird, is exactly what a show with Dickinson’s message should sound like. Combining historical content with modern music makes the show relevant for the reality of today.

But the music in Dickinson goes beyond an elaborate soundtrack. In episode 6 of season 2, Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Split the Lark’ takes on a new form by being adapted into a song. Sung by Ella Hunt, who plays Sue Gilbert, Emily’s lifelong friend, short term lover, and muse, the track carries the viewer into Emily’s imagination, and brings her poetry to life – quite literally, blurring the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined.

Then there’s the instrumental music, which sometimes makes an appearance to mark the presence of a certain character. When Emily’s sister Lavinia (played by the great Anna Baryshnikov) finds out about a fierce and mysterious dancer called Lola Montez, every future mention of the name Lola is accompanied by a musical cue of Spanish castanets. Another instance of an instrumental backdrop is the flashy cue heard every time the charming and influential Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) comes into a scene. Bowles is the editor-in-chief of an important Amherst newspaper gearing up to publish Emily’s poems, and the use of instrumental music exaggerates his character’s persona, and, in the case of Lola Montez and Bowles both, also adds a comedic element to their presence.

Dickinson is, however, far from only being categorised as a comedy, and the choice of music, consistent in the backdrop, subconsciously reminds the viewer of transitions from comedy to tragedy and drama. While one moment the characters might be indulging in a 19th century Bohemian dance accompanied by Carnage’s ‘I Like Tuh’ (feat. I LOVE MAKONNEN) – which is definitely one of the comedic highlights of the show – the next moment might bring a heart-breaking scene accompanied by the Junior Boys’s ‘So This Is Goodbye’. The music stays modern throughout, but the skilful transitions and creative choice of songs convincingly helps the storyline develop.

The soundtrack to Dickinson is a masterpiece in itself, and worth a listen even if the show doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. I can assure you there’s a bop in there for absolutely everyone. Emily Dickinson, I think, would agree with how the show’s creators have utilised contemporary music in a period piece. She of all people would stand for not putting someone – or something, for that matter – into a box. Dickinson perhaps succeeds most with bringing this message to life through making an example of itself. Freeing itself from what is expected from a classic period TV show, Dickinson is relevant, thought-provoking, hilariously witty, and most importantly, can’t be put into a box – and neither can its soundtrack.

You can watch all of Dickinson (season 1 & 2) on AppleTV+ (https://tv.apple.com/gb/show/dickinson/umc.cmc.1ogyy5s2agasxa5qztabrlykn), and the season 2 finale airs this Friday, 26 February. Listen to the Season 1 soundtrack here: (https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/music-from-dickinson/pl.3e05a3b6c3314bd8893f85a9f979108b.)

Image: Julie Jordan Scott on Flickr. 

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